Alone in a silent room, a man waits for a knock on his door. As the minutes tick by, he remembers a life filled with daring and laughter, with parties and heartbreak – a life spent searching for the courage to be himself.

Inspired by the true story of the strange life and lonely death of Mr. Ernest Boulton – one half of the infamous Victorian cross-dressing duo Fanny and Stella – Stella is an intimate meditation on the fine art of keeping one’s nerve as the lights go out. Performed amidst the newly restored splendours of one of London’s oldest surviving music-hall interiors, it is a theatrical love-letter to a truly remarkable person.

Neil Bartlett has been one of Britain’s most individual writers and theatre-makers for over thirty years. His early work included the now-legendary Sarrasine and A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep; from 1994 to 2005 he was Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith. Since leaving the Lyric he has made controversial new work for the National, the Manchester International Festival, the Edinburgh Festival – and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Stella is his first original theatre piece in London for over three years.

I first became aware of Stella (Ernest Boulton) when I read Neil McKenna’s 2013 book Fanny and Stella. The story is both titillating, hilariously funny and devastatingly sad and I was instantly fascinated to learn more. I was excited to hear that Neil Bartlett has written a play based on the life of Stella and that this is being shown as part of the London International Theatre Festival in the beautiful setting of Hoxton hall in London’s East End.

CHRIS BRIDGES: For those who don’t know anything about Ernest Boulton can you tell us a little more about him?
NEIL BARTLETT: The real Stella was called Ernest Boulton, and he was born in Tottenham in 1848. His parents tried to get him to settle down to a career as a bank clerk, but by the age of twenty he was living a very different kind of life than the one they had planned for him. When he wasn’t trolling the West End in tight trousers and full slap , he was working as a drag performer under the name of Stella. On stage he was billed as a female impersonator, but offstage he could also pass as a woman. His lover – an aristocrat Tory MP, no less, one Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton – rented Stella a flat just off the Strand, and there the two of them slept in a double bed and told the servants that they were  man and wife. As if that wasn’t enough of an outrage, Stella also went out on the town without Arthur, trolling the pavements of the Strand for trade while dressed as a far less respectable kind of lady.

In the spring of 1870, this glamorous lifestyle all went disastrously wrong; Stella was arrested in full drag after having been spotted using the ladies’ toilet in a West End theatre. Remarkably, she got off. The charge was conspiracy to commit a felony – i.e, sodomy – and though there was ample evidence that Stella was an outrage, there was no evidence of actual buggery on the night in question. What is even more remarkable is what happened next. Instead of hanging her head in shame, Stella immediately went back out on tour with her drag act; less than a year later, indeed, she had changed her name, dyed her hair blonde and was playing in New York, just off Broadway. So much for the idea that all Victorian homosexuals were unhappy victims! The work in New York dried up as she lost her looks, and Stella eventually came back to Britain to tour in the lower rungs of the provincial variety circuit, sticking it out until shortly before her death in London in 1904.

Ernest had some hideous experiences and his story is a sad indictment on how the Victorians treated gay and transgender men. Would you describe ‘Stella’ as a tragedy?
When I first discovered Stella’s story – which was way back in the dark ages of the 1980s, when I was researching my first book, Who Was That Man? about queer life in Victorian London – it was the young Stella who I identified with – the young fearless queen, sticking two fingers up at the world with her frocks and shamelessness. I was, after all, a young queen myself, and knew quite a bit about the pleasures and perils of trolling the West End in drag. Now I’m the same age that Stella was when she died, it is her courage as an older queen that intrigues me most. What kind of nerve did it take to play all those games with gender and identity in a century where no vocabulary existed to describe what you dreamt of being?

What kind of nerve did it take to tour for all of those years, way past the time when her looks had started to go? Most of all, what kind of nerve did it take to make her final journey – we know that Stella died in the National Hospital, on Queen Square in Holborn, so having lived all her life in frocks, her final identity must have been that of an anonymous patient in a man’s jacket and trousers.

I think Stella has a lot to teach us about courage, about keeping your nerve – so I suppose by bringing her back to life in this show I’m trying to give her a chance to pass on some of the lessons her life taught her. The show is dark, and funny – and uplifting.

Picture shows: Richard Cant

You’ve previously written about life for gay men in 1890 and compared this with your own life in 1980 in your novel Who Was That Man? Do you think there are parallels between the time of Ernest’s trial in 1871 and life in 2016?
Now is a great time to be telling Stella’s story. Sometimes she was a drag queen, sometimes a flaming fairy, sometimes she was a passing “lady”, sometimes she looked and behaved exactly like a pre-surgery, pre-hormones cross-dressed MTF (Male to Female) sex-worker. She challenges all ideas that “identity” is a destination; she was on a journey until the day she died. I think that’s an idea we’re very open to right now, now that trans and non-binary people are doing all this amazing work to open our eyes and hearts and minds. Stella really asks to think about what matters more; who you are, or how you are. For me, Stella’s true “identity” was her courage.

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How did you approach researching and writing the play?
I read everything that has survived – all of the letters and bits and pieces that were preserved in the trial transcripts – and I also spent a lot of time in the British Library tracking down the scripts of the plays that Stella acted in when she was on tour (there are some lines from some of them tucked away in my script)– and I looked at all the photos of her that have survived. That girl did like a photographer’s studio! Just as importantly, I talked to the friends of mine who – like Stella – live and/or work in bodies and gender identities different to the one they were assigned at birth. Fabulous people – Justin V Bond , Scottee, Rebecca Root, Jo Clifford….and some of the things they told have found their way into my Stella’s mouth.

Picture shows: Oscar Batterham

One of the things I loved reading about was Fanny and Stella’s language. The Victorian phrases slang terms were colourful in the extreme. Do we get hear much of this in the play?
There are fragments of Stella’s original voice in the play – but it’s not a history lesson. I’m really trying to put the audience in the same room as her and just let her talk… though I must say, she does have a sharp turn of phrase at times, like every queen I’ve ever known.

Hoxton hall is a stunning place. Quite a coup to show the play in such a pertinent place. Can you tell us more about the venue?
Hoxton Hall one of London’s best kept secrets – a jewel, hidden away half way up Hoxton High Street. Stella is a very intimate show, all about being in the same room as this extraordinary creature, and so it felt right to find somewhere small and secret – also, of course, Hoxton Hall is very much the kind of place that Stella would have played – it’s an actual Victorian musical hall, complete with cast iron balconies and red velvet curtains.

For this piece I wanted to go back to the way of making queer theatre that I used when I first started back in the 1980s, with shows like A Vision Of Love or Sarrasine – find somewhere fabulous and then lure the audience there after dark with the promise of a touch of naked flesh, a bit of cheap costume jewellery and a truly haunting story from our queer past. Since the 19080s my career has taken me to big theatres, the National and the RSC and all that, but I think I’m happiest  in the dark with an audience of queers and a truly magical space.

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Finally, if Ernest were alive today what do you think he’d be doing?
Misbehaving at the Shadow Lounge wearing a fabulous outfit that somebody else had paid for.

Stella plays at Hoxton Hall from 1 – 18 June 2016, 2.30pm and 7.30pm

Post show events:
Panel discussion post-show on the 7th of June with Neil Bartlett, Jonny Woo, Jo Clifford and more
Dialogue Theatre Club on the 9th of June hosted by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr

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About the author: Chris Bridges
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He's usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.